Sophie Wilkinson | Contributing Editor | Thursday, 5 February 2015

We Asked A Common Cold Expert If The Old Wives' Tales Of Getting A Cold Are True

The Debrief: While researchers still desperately search for the cure to the common cold, we try to find out how to avoid it in the first place...

Photo by Roxana Azar

The common cold’s about to get a cure. Apparently. The Daily Mail has reported that scientific researchers have found a clue to stopping colds developing. But while those scientists at the universities of Leeds and York still have some way to go to put this into practice, we got to thinking, what really does cause a cold?

Some of us swear we stave off any illnesses throughout the winter by avoiding going out with wet hair, some don an extra pair of socks more for heat than comfort. But we still get colds. Is it diet? Is it attitude? Or even booze?

We spoke to Professor Ronald Eccles, director of Cardiff University’s Common Cold Centre to find out:

Does wet hair cause a cold?

‘There’s some evidence to support the fact that getting a chill can predispose you to catching a cold. We’ve done some experiments. It’s a controversial area. You have to already have the virus. When colds are circulating, people can carry the virus but show none of the symptoms. Chilling can convert the subclinical/symptomless cold into one with symptoms. If you’re not harbouring a virus, though, you’re not going to get the cold.’

Does the same go for wet feet?

‘Any sort of chilling – cold feet, wet clothes, wet hair. I should add, if you exercise, like jogging or playing sports outside, you’re not going to get chilled, because you’re sweating. So there’s no problem going out and exercising. You’re only going to get the virus from another human.’

At this time of year, is it more likely people are carrying the virus?

‘It’s difficult to say how many. I can say “a lot” but that doesn’t mean much. It differs week by week, with the weather and based on what viruses are circulating.’

A lot of people think ‘Right, it’s winter, I’m going to spend my time inside’ and go to the cinema and the pub.

‘Crowded places are where you’re going to pick it up. But you’ll most likely get it from home, from a housemate or partner. If you’ve got a job that brings you into contact with more people, you’re more likely to get colds.’

READ MORE: Cold Remedies That Aren’t Lemsip Max

And has diet got anything to do with it?

‘There is definitely a link between nutrition and the strength of our body to fight infection. That’s apparent in extreme cases – with people who are starving in the Third World, a common cold virus will kill them because they don’t have the reserves to fight the virus. In the developed world, it’s probably not so important unless you are on a very unusual diet.

‘Anyone on an extreme diet is maybe putting their health at risk. We need zinc for our immune system and if you’re a vegan, you can’t get that easily, so you may need to take a supplement. Most people are probably getting enough in their diet, unless they have an unusual diet. The problem in the West is we have too many options, so we think we can be fussy.’

Are people who get the common cold more likely to have Season Affective Disorder (SAD)?

‘The common cold does affect our mood – it lowers it. And you can overcome that by taking in more caffeine.’

People in Scandinavia drink cod liver oil to help up their vitamin D levels, do we need to do this too?

‘Vitamin D is another area; the levels are lower in the winter because of a lack of sunshine. Research is not clear as to how big the benefit is, but you’d expect it to provide a defence against infection.’

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What would you say to someone who’s spent the entire winter with a perennial cold?

‘The way we respond to the virus differs from one person to the next. So many people have never had a cold. Others say colds are disabling. The people who do get a lot of colds are young mothers. They’ve got increased exposure to viruses, and as they may not be getting enough sleep, they’re likely to be more stressed.’

So we can learn from mothers?

‘Yes, these are big factors that can impact on your susceptibility. So eat better, rest more and relax, that’s what we’re all trying to do.’

READ MORE: Ask An Adult: Why Am I Still Waking Up In A Cold Sweat About That Dream I’m Sitting Finals Totally Unprepated?

As for alcohol…

‘The evidence is that one or two units is beneficial. But after that the effects can be detrimental. It will start impacting on your immune system.’

But a hot toddy?

‘It definitely makes you feel better, but can block up your nose, especially if you lie down.’

Check out what the Common Cold Centre has to say about colds here

Like this? You might also be interested in:

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Picture: Roxana Azar 

Tags: Health